Contemplative Life

Dad and backseat theologians

The other day, I was driving home with my boys after a rained-out Little League practice. Lightning flickered behind receding clouds, a headache lingered from a long day at the office, and my 8-year old, Owen, predictably asked if they could play outside when we got home.

“No,” I replied, igniting Owen’s immediate protest.

“Yeah, Owen,” 6-year-old Berend said, swiftly seizing the moment to chide his older brother, “you’re gonna get killed by lightning.”

“No,” Owen countered calmly, “God doesn’t want us to get killed.”

“Why not?” Ber shot back. “He wants us to be with Him in heaven.”

“No, first He wants us to enjoy His creation for a long time,” said Owen, summoning his older-brother gravitas and pausing, as if before a closing argument: “We can be with Him in heaven later.”

This must have satisfied Ber, because they went right back to a play-by-play analysis of the practice game.

I’m sure theologians would split hairs on the finer points of this back-seat discourse, but what struck me was how both boys were right. So accustomed to “either/or” arguments that culminate mano a mano, they had stumbled upon a “both/and” moment of fraternal concord.

“Why did God make you?” goes the renowned question No. 6 in the Baltimore Catechism. The answer: “God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next.”

In between trying to get the best of each other, the boys covered the classical theological gamut of both “this world” and “the next.” My cautious, pragmatic Owen stressed the presence of God in the here and now of creation. My fearless Ber, however, didn’t flinch as he brought up death and eternity with God in “the next.”

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites,” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

For a moment, I wanted to interrupt the baseball play-by-play and return to the opposites, but I thought better of it.

These moments are capable of giving me far more than a good laugh and a story to tell at the office the next day. They’re poignant reminders to my wife and me of our role as the first evangelists and catechists of our children; of the centrality of prayer in our home; and of our need to cultivate an authentic awareness of heaven, while practicing His presence in the day-to-day.

But these moments offer even more. When we pause and tap into what’s going on beneath the kids’ seemingly incessant needs, we find that we inhabit a fabulous world teeming with their natural wonder, curiosity, gratitude and praise. And while we have much to teach them, we also are their apprentices in these four non-negotiables of the Christian life. A flash of lightning in the sky really is a memento mori. Sometimes, sibling spats can reveal the “both-and” of our human and divine identity, made in the imago Dei.

Simple questions — “What are we praying for tonight?” posed at the outset of our evening family rosary — open the floodgates, revealing a breathtaking awareness of the world around them. Our children call out needs, names and groups of people in rapid-fire succession: family, neighbors, the hungry, soldiers, tornadoes, prisoners, classmates and with great faithfulness on the part of my boys, any recent NFL, NBA or MLB injuries.

For many months, our 4-year-old daughter’s plea at the outset of family prayer has been, “Let’s pray that I won’t have any bad dreams tonight.” Lately though, we witnessed a tectonic shift. She now adds, “And let’s pray that no one in the whole world has any bad dreams tonight.” Her magnanimity is infectious — now all of us are trying to pray globally. Her sanguine confidence with God challenges my own hesitancies.

At the dinner table, the rosary, or a simple drive home, my children hand me the lyrics for a father’s hymn.

Such are the daily graces I enjoy as their dad; the theological seminary I inhabit; the choir I lead; and the table I help to serve. The wonder of it all.

St. Joseph, glory of family life, pray for us.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, leads evangelization efforts in the Arlington Diocese.

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